Seeking a Sane Approach to Incarceration

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John LashIf we understand that there are good evolutionary reasons for our wanting people to suffer when they have done direct or indirect harm to us, then we can account for our strong feelings about the appropriateness of retribution without presuming they are a guide to moral truth.

Janet Radcliffe Richards, Professor of Practical Philosophy at the University of Oxford

We have an addiction to punitive justice, and like other addicts we can justify and rationalize our addiction amazingly well. AsRichards points out in the above quotation, there is an undeniably evolutionary basis for the emotions we experience when someone causes harm, but those urges shouldn’t form the basis of our justice policy.

Consider the case of Travion Blount. At 15, Blount and two 19-year-olds robbed a Norfolk, Va., party at the home of a purported drug dealer. No one was hurt and no shots were fired. The two adults were given 10- and 13- year sentences as part of a plea deal. Blount, who was by all accounts a follower in the crime, refused to plead guilty, stating that he wasn’t guilty of all of the crimes of which he was accused. He was found guilty by a jury of 49 felony counts and sentenced to six life terms and 118 years.

Virginia governor Bob McDonnell recently commuted his sentence to 40 years, partially at his own initiative and also at the behest of juvenile justice advocates. McDonnell, in perhaps one of the stingiest acts of mercy in recent memory, believed that the new sentence was a “just punishment”, according to Janet Kelly, secretary of the commonwealth.

Supporters of Blount, including the NAACP, promise to keep fighting on his behalf, but many residents have been angered with the commutation. What is it about his sentence, still three times longer than that of the young men whom he followed in the robbery, that seems fair and just? It is patently unjust, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rulings concerning life sentences in Miller and Graham that juvenile defendants are by their nature less culpable than older criminals. These followed the same reasoning as the court’s 2005 ban of the death penalty for kids in the Roperdecision.

What if a kid goes along with the system? Shimeek Gridine of Jacksonville, Fla., did just that. In 2009, the the 14-year-old committed an armed robbery with another boy. Gridine fired a shotgun, wounding the victim, but not seriously. He was tried as an adult and decided to plead guilty. Usually that is a smart move when the government has a strong case. However, for Shimeek the decision backfired. The judge sentenced him to 70 years for attempted murder and robbery.

Just as in Blount’s case we are left to wonder what exactly is the purpose of such a punishment. It can’t be fairness, since many who commit worse crimes will do significantly less time.

Even so, efforts to get his sentence reduced have been met in some quarters with cries of “soft on crime” and “bleeding heart liberals.” Besides the fact that we are talking about a 14-year-old boy, the belief that such a punishment constitutes justice strikes me as willfully delusional. Incarceration without any purpose beyond revenge is beyond misguided, it is also immoral. No one is suggesting that they shouldn’t be removed from society for a time, but it is important that we connect the removal to goals that match fairness, justice and mercy.

Gridine is now challenging the constitutionality of his case before the Florida Supreme Court, and a ruling is expected in a few months. But even if he loses his case, chances are that another one like it will eventually end up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. If the court follows its trend we could see a broader change to the types of sentences allowed in the country.

In Virginia, a state senator has proposed a bill to establish panels of judges to examine the cases of juvenile offenders with long sentences. After 20 years they would have an opportunity to demonstrate their rehabilitation and be granted their freedom. This is the kind of sane approach that balances victims’ rights, community safety, the rights of kids to a second chance and plain common sense and decency.